Engineering, Global Health
University of California, Los Angeles
Program for Translational Biophotonics and Telemedicine Technologies
Aydogan Ozcan develops technologies to improve global health, especially for patients who don't have access to expensive medical equipment or highly trained health care workers. For him, the boundaries between scientific disciplines are necessarily blurred. “Engineering as a whole, life sciences – that's what I do.” he says. He is passing that interdisciplinary approach on to his students in the classroom and in his lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is training a new generation of scientists to think broadly and creatively to create technologies that drive real change.
Ozcan grew up in Turkey, where he excelled in math and physics. He earned a PhD in electrical engineering at Stanford University, where he became interested in the biomedical applications of imaging and other light-based technologies. When he began a postdoctoral research position at Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard, the clinical setting helped him recognize the variety of medical challenges that could be addressed through better optical technologies.
New technologies are needed to improve basic health care delivery in the developing world, Ozcan says. Lack of infrastructure in these places can prevent patients from reaching medical facilities for treatment or preventive care, and it's often impractical to transport sensitive or bulky instrumentation to remote settings. “But now we can create mobile devices, so that a simple motorbike with a technician can convert itself into a small point-of-care unit to treat patients,” Ozcan says.
One such device is the tiny, lens-free microscope that Ozcan developed. Ozcan replaced the lens that magnifies objects in a traditional bench-top microscope with computational algorithms that reconstruct objects from their shadows. The information-rich shadows are detected using the image sensor from a cell phone. “Most of what you need is already at the back of your mobile phone,” Ozcan says. “This allows us to bring a very advanced microscope function to a field-portable design.” The microscope attaches to a cell phone or standalone mobile device, which may interpret the shadows itself or send the information to a server for image processing. The low-cost devices can even detect individual viruses – typically just one-thousandth the width of a human hair – across a very large field of view.
Portable and yet powerful technologies like these are a key component of Ozcan's larger vision, an integrated system of diagnostic and measurement tools and data to aid disease diagnosis, public health monitoring, and policy decisions. “The mobile coverage in the developing parts of the world is amazing,” he says. “There's huge potential to leverage existing technologies and create some medical infrastructure.” One problem he's already taking on is high error rates for the diagnosis of malaria and other diseases in developing countries.
“The reason for that is lack of training and lack of expertise. You can give them microscopes [to look for infected cells], but if the diagnostician is not qualified, you will have lots of false positives,” he says. His solution is a crowd-sourcing platform in which images of patients' cells can be uploaded to a server and analyzed by crowds of non-professional gamers. These untrained crowds, once their decisions are merged using clever algorithms, can collectively identify malaria-infected blood cells with an accuracy rate that comes within one percent of that of an expert pathologist, Ozcan says.
Ozcan wants his students to understand that science and engineering are a process. “A good researcher or engineer always starts with asking a good question, without having any clue how to solve it,” he says. “That's the most exciting thing about the practice of science and engineering to me. Because it's freedom. You can solve it 100 different ways within the boundaries of your constraints or budget.”
He says students need to experience firsthand that the path to success involves formulating good questions, testing ideas, failing, and revising an approach – often again and again. That's why he brings undergraduate students into his lab to contribute directly to his research. More than 60 undergraduates have joined Ozcan's research team since 2007, contributing to more 100 conference proceedings and nearly 50 journal publications. “I want them to understand early on the process of looking at unknown things that there's literally not a book for,” Ozcan says.
Ozcan's new initiative as an HHMI professor is designed to bring these experiences to an even larger cadre of UCLA students. Each year, up to 25 undergraduate students with diverse backgrounds will work in teams to create innovative solutions for challenges in telemedicine, mobile health and global health. Members of Ozcan's research team will mentor students as they explore independent research projects that integrate with the broad goals of Ozcan's lab. Students will have opportunities to present their work at conferences, in peer-reviewed journals, and at an annual undergraduate research and demo workshop. “We want to give them freedom to explore. If you don't let people have some freedom to fail, you can't train or teach them effectively,” Ozcan says.